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updated: 3/29/2013 7:30 AM

Pinot Grigio enjoying its moment in the spotlight

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Pinot Grigio is having its day.

According to Nielsen data, Pinot Grigio has toppled Sauvignon Blanc in retail sales, snatching the title of America's third most popular grape (after Chardonnay and Cabernet).

The feat is remarkable, especially from a grape that as recently as 1980, few wine drinkers in the U.S. -- or anywhere else for that matter -- had even heard of.

Pinot Grigio is the gray-skinned member of the Pinot family, cousin to black-skinned Pinot Noir. Generally associated with northern Italy, it actually originated in France and was carried to Italy in the 1800s and looked down upon as a weak comparison to classic Italian varieties such as Tocai Friulano and Verdicchio. (Cognoscenti caring little for Italy's GDP still turn up their nose at Pinot Grigio.)

Pinot Grigio had grown in France for centuries under the moniker Tokay. Not until the 2007 vintage bottling has the European Union required a name change to Pinot Gris.

In 1979, Pinot Grigio's sun came onto the horizon when Chicago-based importer Anthony J. Terlato introduced Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. Wine drinkers opted out of the oaky and painfully priced California Chardonnay of the era, choosing Pinot Grigio's light-bodied, lemony refreshment.

Nowadays, Italian Pinot Grigio is available in a wide range of price and quality. Ask your wine merchant for recommendations or look for these Pinot Grigios to pair with lighter dishes, especially when prepared or served with lemon, such as salads, light seafood and poultry, the lightest meats and appetizers, such as deviled eggs!

MezzaCorona: Italy's largest wine cooperative consistently offers clean, brisk refreshment, widely available for about $7.99.

Bollini: Produced in contact with the grape's gray skin, Bollini is darker in color and richer in flavor without sacrificing bright acidity for about $11.99. Serve with

richer, light dishes -- i.e., grilled shrimp instead of steamed, bone-in poultry instead of boneless.

In France, Pinot Gris ripens in the Alsace region's warm, dry climate and rocky soil to richer texture and flavors ranging from lemon curd and pear, to brown spice and mushroom, a sturdy companion to recipes incorporating truffles, mushrooms and the noble pig in many forms -- bacon, sausage, chops and pork pie. Look for producers including Trimbach, Hügel and Schlumberger, under $20.

In the late 1900s, Pinot Gris followed Pinot Noir to Oregon, becoming a cause celebre for groundbreaking winegrowers including Eyrie, Adelsheim, and Ponzi. With ripe stone fruit flavors, firm acidity and rich mouthfeel, Oregon Pinot Gris makes a luscious cocktail and complement to many cuisines, my favorites being sushi and the growing assortment of Peruvian options in city and suburbs. Recommended Oregon Pinot Gris include the originals above, along with:

Lange Estate "Willamette" Pinot Gris: Aromas of stone fruits and lemon zest and flint, with flavors white peach and vanilla, accented with and lemon-lime acidity. (New to market, distributed by Eagle Eye Imports, $19.99)

Big Fire from R. Stuart: Rich mango and ripe pear flavors with a snap of ginger accents, texturous mouthfeel, about $12.99.

Pinot Grigio's profit engine couldn't chug along without California and Australia jumping abroad. While they pack retail shelves and wine lists, this palate has not experienced a warm climate Pinot Grigio or Gris that expresses the grape's vivacity, freshness or interest.

Pinot Grigio's success recalls Merlot, another once-unknown grape. Popularity triggered overproduction and diminished quality. From its peak in 2004, all it took was one line in one movie to trigger an avalanche in sales, from which Merlot has not recovered. While beautifully crafted Merlot is produced around the world, nobody's buying. Analysts call it "The Sideways Effect."

Pinot Grigio is having its day. I hope for the sake of fine Pinot Grigio/Gris producers, that tomorrow the world doesn't wake up and say, "I will NOT drink any @#$%! Pinot Grigio!"

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at fodo@dailyherald.com.

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